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Coping With A Crisis Or Disaster

Experiencing a crisis or a natural disaster like a flood, bushfire or cyclone, can be a stressful and traumatic time for a family. Here are some tips to help you and your child cope.

Child hugging parent

Before and during a crisis or disaster

Experiencing a crisis, disaster or a trauma is an extremely stressful time for a family.

Before a known, imminent crisis or disaster like a bushfire, families are usually busy preparing and following the advice of emergency personnel. The focus is on safety and basic needs, such as water, food, shelter and medical care (if needed). But the disaster can continue to impact on the mental health and wellbeing of children and families once the crisis has passed.

For children not directly affected by a disaster or crisis, witnessing the suffering of others (e.g. on the news) may result in secondary trauma that can cause distress or impact on their wellbeing.

After a crisis or disaster

Trauma is a normal, natural response to experiencing or witnessing something dangerous or distressing. It may appear weeks, months or even years after a crisis or disaster event. Each child is different and may respond in a variety of ways and children of different ages may respond differently. Normal behavioural responses to a traumatic event can include:

Feelings of grief

Separation anxiety

Regressive behaviour

Difficulties concentrating 

Sleep issues and nightmares

Feelings of anxiety or insecurity 

Aggression or emotional outbursts

Physical symptoms – e.g. stomach ache

Feelings of confusion or asking questions

Withdrawal or loss of interest in usual activities

Supporting your child

Children benefit from a calm, safe and strong parental presence.

Children are like sponges and can easily soak up the emotions of those around them. Following a disaster, children need safety and nurturing to process their thoughts and emotions.

As a parent, you have also been through a trauma. You may be experiencing physical injuries, challenging thoughts and emotions, financial hardship, social changes and other impacts. Taking care of yourself and seeking support if needed is an important part of supporting your child to heal and recover.

Awareness of your own emotions and behaviours, including how you are responding to or processing trauma will help you to provide a calm, safe and supportive environment for your child. 

Other ways to support your child

It’s normal for children to process in their own time. Processing can take time and varies depending upon your child’s personality, past experiences and developmental age. Here are some other ways you can support your child:

Try as soon as possible to get children back to their usual routines

Be aware of other sources of information you child is exposed to (e.g. the media)

Involve them in altruistic or recovery activities such as donating, volunteer work, etc. 

Put boundaries around media and sources of information to limit exposure to distressing or adult content

Make time to connect with your child in positive ways – this could be by doing something they enjoy, engaging in play or having fun

Communicate with your child – reassure them that they are safe, that things will get better and that we have brave people who help make our communities safe and help in times of disaster

"Children have an amazing capacity to heal and recover with the right support. The relationship between parent and child plays a big role in achieving positive outcomes after a trauma."

-Kim, Parentline Manager

You don’t have to go through this alone

You know your child best.

This content was last reviewed 08/01/2020

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